One of my favorite Simpsons characters was and is Lionel Hutz, the incompetent lawyer voiced by the late Phil Hartman. Whether suing the makers of The Never-Ending Story for false advertising or drooling over a bottle of bourbon in open court, Hutz epitomized “bad lawyering.”
Today (Tuesday) is Hartman’s birthday, and in honor of this, I thought I’d debut a new feature that celebrates the best in cartoonishly bad real-world criminal lawyering. Every now and then, I’ll spotlight and evaluate some unlawyerly behavior to see whether it measures up to Hutz’s terrible standard.
Name: Martin Zimmerman
Alleged misconduct: Napping during a trial, forgetting his client’s name, failing to enter a plea bargain.
The circumstances: Facing an absurdly long sentence, Daniel Textor Jr. needed a good lawyer. Unfortunately, he got a sleepy one. Textor, a habitual offender who had heroin possession and assault charges on his record, was up on charges of driving while intoxicated with a child in the car and harassing a public servant (he allegedly spat on a police officer)—charges which could have landed Textor an outlandish 88 years in prison, thanks to Texas laws that provide enhanced penalties for repeat offenders. So when prosecutors offered Textor a plea bargain of a mere 65 years—45 years for spitting on the cop, 20 years for DUI (!)—the unlucky defendant was eager to take the deal.
His lawyer, Martin Zimmerman, was clearly not. For some reason, Zimmerman completely failed to submit the plea, and the case unnecessarily went to trial. Well, maybe Zimmerman thought he could win Textor an acquittal, you say? If so, he chose an odd strategy for doing so: he called no witnesses, and allegedly fell asleep during the trial. Textor was convicted and sentenced to 88 years. During a recent hearing, as the San Antonio Express-News reported, an exasperated Textor complained to the judge about his lawyer’s conduct:
“This man has been sleeping through my trial,” Textor, 37, told state District Judge Dib Waldrip, transcripts of the Aug. 28 proceeding show. “This is the same man who didn't even know my name during... choosing my jury. This man said my name was Jonathan Dextor.”
(Well, at least he didn’t think he was representing the serial-killing main character from the TV show Dexter. Or maybe he did, I don’t know!) Anyway, the judge granted Textor a new trial, and a new lawyer, who secured the original plea bargain. When questioned during the hearing, Zimmerman rated his performance in Textor’s case as an eight or nine out of ten, which really makes you wonder what a one or two out of ten would look like. I hope I never have to find out.
Mitigating factors: Look, Zimmerman certainly isn’t the only court-appointed defense attorney ever to fall asleep on the job. In fact, it happens fairly often. Despite what Perry Mason and Jack McCoy might want you to think, a courtroom can be a pretty boring place. If you’re old, or overworked—or if you just have sleep apnea, as Zimmerman claimed—you’re almost guaranteed to fall asleep at least once during a trial. The real fault here lies with America’s criminal justice system, and its inexcusable failure to incorporate fireworks or laser light shows into courtroom proceedings.
Hutz Meter: I’ll give this 7 out of 10 on the Hutz Meter. Falling asleep in court and forgetting your client’s name certainly qualifies as cartoonishly unprofessional behavior. But if he was really bad, he would have fallen asleep and forgotten his own name.